Beyoncé, "Lemonade" (Parkwood)

Beyoncé has made a habit of dropping fully finished albums out of nowhere, and she did it once more last weekend with the arrival of "Lemonade."

It'll take a while to absorb everything that Beyoncé has poured into her sixth studio album — a dozen songs plus a 60-minute movie that's an essential companion providing context and deepening understanding. But it's apparent already that "Lemonade" is her most accomplished and cohesive work yet, and that's not meant to underestimate the impact of a discography that has yielded era-defining singles such as "Single Ladies" and "Irreplaceable."

"Lemonade" is more than just a play for pop supremacy. It's the work of an artist who is trying to get to know herself better, for better or worse, and letting the listeners/viewers in on the sometimes brutal self-interrogation.

For decades, since she was in the teen pop group Destiny's Child, Beyoncé has projected an air of perfection. She always appeared slightly above her audience — remote, untouchable. Her guard dropped slightly with "Beyoncé," her 2013 "visual album." Its best moments paired music and videos with an off-the-cuff adventurousness that looked, sounded and felt grittier than anything she'd done before. But the artistic advances made on that album feel slight when measured against the more personal, raw and relatable "Lemonade."

The gossips are flapping about what insights it may provide into the turmoil in Beyoncé's marriage to Jay Z, but that would be selling it short. There's a painful breakup at its center, but it offers a wider-screen view into family and the wisdom of mothers and grandmothers, the nature of manhood as defined by fathers and sons, the way that environment — geographic and psychic — imprints us from youth, the way love can break and redeem, the meaning of freedom and community.

Beyoncé spends most of the album smashing the cookie cutter. She pulls in Diplo, Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd, but relative newcomers also play key roles: singer-songwriter Kevin Garrett and MC Khalif Brown, a cameo from British singer James Blake, quotes from Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Her visual choices are as daring as her sonic ones: A series of cutting-edge directors, including Khalil Joseph and Melina Matsoukas, worked on the movie.

Despite the bounty of collaborators, "Lemonade" was clearly conceived as a complete work, and Beyoncé's unifying vision for what could have been a prettily packaged hodgepodge should not be discounted.

It immerses the listener/viewer in its world: The accompanying movie includes a haunting image of Beyoncé underwater, floating inside her bedroom, gazing upon her sleeping self. The songs, the sounds, the images are from the South, where Beyoncé grew up and her family lived for generations. The visuals juxtapose urban grime with nature's sprawl.

Beyoncé's voice is theatrical: the hushed accusation of "Pray You Catch Me"; the deceptive playfulness of the reggae-flavored "Hold Up"; the rough ache in "Don't Hurt Yourself," the bluesy, back-porch New Orleans sway of "Daddy Lessons." In the last she casts "daddy" as an outlaw from another era but ties the yarn to a wider story about communities in which guns dictate commerce, dish out justice, settle (or perpetuate) arguments and become integral to family legacies.

Hard-won reconciliation arrives on "All Night," but there's nothing rote about it. It segues into the militant determination of "Formation." What she says — conflating her past and her family with her ambition as a young African-American woman with dreams still unrealized — comes through in that don't-mess-with-me rasp. It's Beyoncé without makeup or the Cleopatra pose saying, "How you like me now?"

greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

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